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Jan. 11, 2021, 4:00 p.m. EST

‘We forget about them as being essential workers.’ COVID-19 has made farm workers even more vulnerable — and created momentum to protect them

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By Bianca Flowers

The Value Gap is a MarketWatch Q&A series with business leaders, academics, policymakers and activists on how to reduce racial and social inequalities.

Farm workers have long labored to put food on millions of Americans’ tables — and many now face a new set of vulnerabilities due to COVID-19, says the leader of the nation’s largest farm workers union. The pandemic has both highlighted their already-precarious situations and created fresh momentum to address some of the unique issues they face.

“We quickly realized that they had zero information about how to protect themselves and they didn’t have proper PPE,” United Farm Workers president Teresa Romero said of non-unionized farm workers. If they requested personal protective equipment, she said, they’d often be fired.

The fight to ensure safety protections and livable wages for farm workers began long before Romero would become the first immigrant and first Latina to lead the union, which was founded by the late civil-rights leader Cesar Chavez. She says it’s been a privilege to carry on the legacy of the country’s oldest farm-labor movement.

“Working for the rights of farm workers is not just a job — it’s a cause,” said Romero. Or, as Chavez would say, La Causa

Romero grew up in Mexico City before moving to the United States in her early 20s. She became a legal resident of California, and later a U.S. citizen, under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 signed into law by then President Ronald Reagan.

Prior to rising in the United Farm Workers’ ranks, Romero managed a law firm where most of her day-to-day consisted of assisting farm workers with immigration and compensation claims. She hasn’t slowed her pace since then — negotiating overtime pay for farm workers in the state of California, in addition to advocating for state legislation to protect workers against extreme weather conditions.

Farm workers have been exempt from basic labor protections for decades. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 excluded agricultural workers and domestic workers, who were largely Black laborers at the time . The U.S. agriculture industry remains heavily reliant on migrant and seasonal workers who come to the states to work temporarily on agricultural visas, known as H-2A

Meanwhile, COVID-19 outbreaks have been reported on several farms across the country since the onset of the pandemic. Only 11 states have issued mandatory farm-worker safety protections, while the majority have provided only recommendations or no guidance at all.

Commutes with people from outside their household put many farm workers at greater risk of contracting the disease, one study of California farm workers suggested. Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable because of language barriers and lack of information from their employers on how to properly protect themselves, according to Romero.

“Pandemic or not, it’s a constant concern for undocumented farm workers that if they speak up, they’ll lose their jobs,” she said. “The pandemic has just amplified those fears and made it worse for them.”

Romero spoke to MarketWatch in early December for a Value Gap interview about continuing the fight for equality for farm workers — both documented and undocumented — as she and other labor leaders push for legal protections across several regions of the U.S. where standards are minimal or nonexistent.

MarketWatch: The safety of farm workers have never been in the spotlight before like it is now during the pandemic. How long have worker protections been an issue, and what needs to be done now?

Romero: Since the Jim Crow era, farm workers were left out of labor protections other workers received. At that time most farm workers were African American, and they were excluded from workers’ protections such as the right to organize, to receive overtime pay and the right to workers’ compensation. 

For years, we fought to get workers overtime pay after working eight hours. In 2016, we were finally successful in getting [the legislation passed] in California. Before the law, farm workers wouldn’t get overtime until after working 10 hours a day. When Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor of California, we had implemented regulations to protect farm workers from extreme heat because they were getting sick and dying. Those are [a few] challenges they face day in and day out.

MarketWatch: More than 75% of farm workers are immigrants. It’s taken years for farm workers to be deemed essential workers . Do you believe they’re being treated as such?

Romero: A lot of the times when people talk about essential workers, they [specifically mention] doctors, nurses, first responders and store clerks. All of those people deserve that praise and I thank God for them. Farm workers are the backbone of the agricultural industry and I think we forget about them as being essential workers, and a workforce that is putting food on our table, so they need to be recognized as well.

MarketWatch: How can the government help advance and protect the labor movement for farm workers started by Cesar Chavez?  

Romero: One of the things that our government can do is make it easier for farm workers to organize, and to decide whether or not they want a union. Undocumented workers should be able to cast their vote for a union without fear of being fired, or approached with other anti-union threats. When the United Farm Workers first started, it was very confrontational. Now, we have very good relationships with our union companies. We work together to improve workers’ conditions and get them more benefits. As essential workers, they deserve that.

MarketWatch: Farm workers have become susceptible to contracting COVID-19 in part because they aren’t aware of their rights. What efforts have you made to inform workers of their rights? What can government officials do?

Romero: Right now, we’re working to get overtime pay and dangerous heat protection at the national level. We reached out to donors and were able to distribute hundreds of thousands of masks in California, Washington and Oregon to farm workers who had no protections. We worked with the governor of California [Gavin Newsom] and convinced him to include farm workers [documented and undocumented] within the protections of paid sick leave

In many of these [COVID-19] benefit programs that have helped Americans, farm workers are excluded [from federal protections]. At United Farm Workers, we say that “the laws in books are not the laws in the fields.” Even when you have a [state] law that says farm workers are entitled to paid leave, in the fields it’s not being implemented because they aren’t being told [by employers] that they have that right. So enforcement of the laws is a big issue.

MarketWatch: What are some concerns that you’re hearing from unionized workers? And what challenges are non-unionized farm workers facing?

Romero: In the beginning of the pandemic, we immediately started working with employers and companies [that are under union contracts] to ensure that farm workers were receiving PPE and the education they needed to protect themselves.

It hasn’t been the same for companies who aren’t unionized. Many workers choose not to say anything because they are concerned about having a roof over their heads and putting food on the table, so they stay quiet and deal with these abuses. Farm workers often tell me that they feel disposable.

MarketWatch: In September, you were selected to serve on President-elect Joe Biden’s transition advisory board. What policies would you like to see implemented in the Biden administration with regards to equitable treatment and better wages for farm workers? 

Romero: Farm workers in California are probably the best paid in the country [at about $12 an hour]. But there are states where the minimum wage is $7. Under the H-2A visa, workers come mostly from Mexico and South America. … [Going forward] we need a Secretary of Agriculture who understands farm workers; who’s willing to go out and interact with them, understand their needs, and give them a seat at the table.

[Editor’s note: Biden , a former two-term Iowa governor who was Agriculture Secretary during the Obama administration, to lead the department again.]

MarketWatch: How has stigmatization impacted farm workers and the labor movement?

Romero: The rhetoric of farm workers being rapists and criminals is reinforced because people don’t know them. [Before the pandemic], farm workers told me they worry about immigration because they don’t have documents and they have to talk to their kids about what they would need to do if they don’t come home. People who live in communities where farm workers are actively working can [sometimes] think criminals are working in those fields because of [their] immigration status or the color of [their] skin.

MarketWatch: This past summer, farm workers stood in solidarity with organizers and protesters in the Black Lives Matter movement. What are some solutions you feel are needed to address inequality? 

Romero: Most of us have some racism in us. We have to work to combat it, and it comes from the top. United Farm Workers participated [in person] and on social media in support of the Black community because it is unfathomable to me that [some] Black people are afraid of being stopped by a police officer because of the color of their skin. 

We need better training, laws and accountability from everyone. When Cesar Chavez was fighting for the rights of farm workers, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sent him a note saying, “Our struggles are the same.” And I truly believe that.

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